Eyewitness account of the discovery of Babatha’s archive

Terrified, dangling in the air between the sky and the earth on a rope ladder that swung crazily in all directions, I couldn’t believe that I, a city mouse and family man with three children, was clinging to a cliff wall in the Nahal Hever canyon in the middle of the Judean desert. I was climbing to the Cave of Horrors—so named because of the many skeletons found there on my first day as the official photographer for an archaeological expedition.

I had been working as a press photographer when, in March 1962, Yigael Yadin asked me to join an expedition to the caves where letters of Bar Kosiba, leader of the Second Jewish Revolt against Rome (132–135 C.E.), and other important finds had been discovered. The expedition was headed by four well-known archaeologists who would each lead a search team: Yadin in the Cave of Letters in Nahal Hever about 3 miles southwest of En-Gedi, Yohanan Aharoni in the Cave of Horrors across the valley from Yadin’s cave, Nahman Avigad in Nahal David about 2 miles northwest of En-Gedi, and Pesach Bar-Adon in Nahal Mishmar about 5 miles southwest of En-Gedi.

Aharoni had asked me to start with him in the Cave of Horrors. The cave was on a steep slope, so that’s how I came to be on a rope ladder, with a rope tied around my waist for safety, climbing down to the cave entrance with heavy cameras on my shoulders. As I reached the entrance, one of the crew members grabbed me and pulled me inside the cave. I was completely frozen from the terror of my descent.

I had just begun photographing skeletons when the field telephone rang. It was Yadin asking me to come immediately to the Cave of Letters. They had discovered some objects in his cave and he was waiting until I got there to excavate them. He wanted me to photograph every part of their unveiling.

Although I could see the Cave of Letters across the deep valley, it took me about four hours to cross the rough terrain and arrive at Yadin’s camp on the bluff above the cave. It was dark by that time. Everyone in camp was so excited we hardly slept; we set out for the the next morning at first light down a narrow goat trail with high boulders on one side and a deep wadi on the other. The trail was only as wide as my foot in places. When we reached a small plateau beneath the cave, we climbed a rope ladder to the entrance. (Other workers climb to the Cave of Letters, photo at beginning of sidebar.)

Inside the sizable cave openings, small tunnels connected three large halls. I crawled through the narrow tunnels, pulling and pushing to squeeze through with cameras around my neck, to reach the third hall, Hall C, where the objects had been discovered near the entrance. The previous day, a team member named Sefi had stepped on a wobbly stone, which aroused his suspicions enough to remove it. Underneath, hidden deep in a crevice between two rocks, he saw a basket made of palm fronds, filled to the brim with artifacts. He notified Yadin, who saw a water skin and some other objects he couldn’t make out, also in the crevice. Now, under a strong light held by an electric cable, Yadin struggled into the crevice.

The heavy breathing of the team, the squealing of the bats and the clicking of my camera were the only sounds as Yadin reached into the basket. He pulled out a wooden box, later identified as a empty jewelry box. This was followed by a set of four wooden bowls, an iron sickle, a woman’s pair of leather sandals, keys, a chopper and knives. As each object emerged there were cries of excitement.

Beneath the basket Yadin found a torn and worm-eaten goatskin and, to its side, a flat iron pan, bronze jugs and a metal mirror (below). This left no doubt that the basket had belonged to a woman. (The wicker basket, glass cosmetic container, jewelry and knife handle at right were among the other feminine objects also found in the cave.)

Inside the goatskin, Yadin found a parchment scroll tied with a palm frond. We were sure this was the most important discovery—perhaps another Dead Sea Scroll. But later, when it was opened in Jerusalem, it was completely blank. Reaching deeper in the goatskin, Yadin brought out skeins of yarn, some rags, ropes and more yarn. The goatskin seemed empty. But as Yadin checked to make sure he had missed nothing, his hand touched a bundle of rags. When he brought it out, he could see a hoard of papyrus rolls wrapped together, what we now call the Babatha archive, describing everyday life during the Bar Kosiba period.

Thirty-five years later I remember that wonderful and exciting experience as the greatest in my life as a photographer. I was privileged to be present at the discovery of what was left of the Bar Kosiba warriors and their families and thus to learn of their way of life as a free people in Jerusalem and En-Gedi, and of what they went through in their final, bitter struggle against the Romans.—David Harris